One time in the past three years, Kansas has been picked by the Big 12 coaches as the preseason favorite to capture the conference crown in men's basketball. The Jayhawks were the Big 12 champions all three years. In fact, Bill Self's team has captured the conference crown in men's basketball seven consecutive years and has shared or been the outright champion 11 of the 15 seasons since the Big 12's first year in 1996.
The Jayhawks dominance and national prominence in basketball goes far beyond the Big 12, however. Kansas has won 54 regular-season conference championships and has the second most wins (2,038) of any NCAA Division I program (behind Kentucky) and the third-best all-time winning percentage (.718). Adding to their national acclaim in college basketball, the Jayhawks have recorded 92 winning seasons in their storied 112-year history, the most of any Division I school.
If that doesn't strike fear in the mind and heart of anyone brave enough to count the Jayhawks out, it should also be noted that KU has made 40 NCAA appearances in men's basketball, advanced to the Final Four 13 times and has won three national championships in three different decades.
On Thursday, the Big 12 men's basketball coaches named Kansas and SEC-bound Texas A&M as the co-favorites to win the 2011-12 conference crown. The Jayhawks received five first-place votes, Texas A&M had two first-place votes, the same as Baylor, and Missouri received one vote. All four schools receiving first-place votes also placed players on the Preseason All-Big 12 team, along with Texas, which was picked to finish fifth in the conference this coming season.
Kansas is coming off a 35-3 season in which the Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed and ranked No. 2 in the country heading into NCAA Tournament, before losing in the Elite Eight round. So it's easy to see how Kansas would be expected to be strong again this season. The problem is, Self lost much of the firepower and leadership off of last year's national championship-caliber squad. The Morris twins, Marcus and his brother, Markieff, both declared for the NBA draft last spring and were both selected in the first round. Freshman sensation from a year ago, Josh Selby, also left to turn pro, and the Jayhawks lost Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar to graduation. KU does have Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor back for this season, but other than that, the Jayhawks will uncharacteristically have a number of new faces on the floor this season.
Last year, with all those guys in tow, the Big 12 coaches picked the Jayhawks to finish third in the conference, and Self and Co. proved everybody wrong, but what else is new when you talk about Kansas basketball. KU has a long tradition of always seeming to be there at the end. There's not better proof of the point than the 1987-88 team, the team that came to be nicknamed "Danny (Manning) and the Miracles." Kansas finished third in the Big Eight Conference that year behind Oklahoma and Kansas State, and yet the Jayhawks went on an improbable run in the NCAA Tournament and captured their second national championship with a huge upset win over Oklahoma that no one thought possible.
You've got to wonder if Kansas is living on its grand legacy to a large extent and that that is a big reason why the conference coaches are shy about picking against the Jayhawks as conference contenders, as they have been throughout the Big 12 era and long before. Even Self expressed some concern about the expectations for his 2011-12 squad. At KU's annual basketball media day on Thursday, Self said he was surprised that the Jayhawks had been picked as the conference favorite. "Yeah, I'm surprised," he said. "I always say that the coaches know more than the media, but I'm not sure that's the case in our league right now. We've kind of gone into the season with tempered expectations to be honest with you, and I've tried to do that with our fans a little bit. I think its fine and we're kind of used to being in the situation where people expect us to be decent, and we won't shy away from that."
Texas A&M has three starters and 10 letter winners returning from last season's third-place Big 12 team that made its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Baylor also is loaded with talent, and might be better than either Kansas or A&M this season. I also personally was a little surprised to see Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State picked to finish fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Just goes to show you how competitive the Big 12 is expected to be in basketball this season, the league's first year without Nebraska and Colorado.
Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech drew the short end of the straw insofar as the Big 12 coaches view of the coming season. But I wouldn't count any of the 10 conference teams out. There's enough talent and coaching experience throughout the league to take advantage of an off game that any of the conference front runners might experience or run up against on a given night this season.
Preseason predictions are fun for the fans and get people excited about the start of the season, but we all know that, in reality, they mean absolutely nothing. What counts is what happens on the court in the actual games throughout the long college basketball season. But what the heck. In the end, it's my unbinding shot into the future that we'll see Kansas near the top, again, but looking up at Baylor and Texas A&M in the final conference standings.
Rock chalk, KU. This year, you're really going to need it.
Preseason Big 12 Men's Basketball Poll
1T. Kansas (5)
1T. Texas A&M (2)
3. Baylor (2)
4. Missouri (1)
6. Kansas State
7. Oklahoma State
8. Iowa State
9T. Texas Tech